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Recent Reads: Vainglory by Ronald Firbank

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Wow! I certainly followed up Verne with a completely different book, didn’t I? I don’t think two books could be less alike than “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Vainglory”!

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (17 January 1886 – 21 May 1926) was an innovative British novelist. His eight short novels, partly inspired by the London aesthetes of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality.

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I actually have a little bit of history reading Firbank – I have somewhere in the stacks a very old-style Wordsworth Classic of “Valmouth” which I know I read (the bookmark is still in the book at the end of that story) but I can remember absolutely nothing about it, apart from that I enjoyed it! This would probably be at least 15 years ago, so maybe that’s not surprising – but I do wonder I would have made of it at the time, knowing nothing much about Firbank and not having any context in which to put him. Maybe a revisit is due.

But on to “Vainglory”, a volume kindly provided by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher I’m happy to support. According to Michael, Firbank is considered a “difficult” writer, but I don’t think he’s difficult – just different! The story here revolves around the desire of the wonderfully-named Mrs. Shamefoot to have a stained glass window built in her honour. She fixes on Ashringford cathedral and much of the action is set there, while she tries to persuade all and sundry that the window would be a good idea. Around Mrs. Shamefoot circle a huge array of wonderfully-named characters, just a few of whom are Mira Thumbler, Julia Compostella, Winsome Brookes, Dr. Pantry, Mrs. Henedge, Mrs. and Miss Wookie, and the three Chalfont sisters, never seen apart and constantly laughing madly about something – laughter that becomes dangerous….

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However, as Wikipedia astutely points out, “the plot is of minor importance and the interest, as with all Firbank’s work, lies in the dialogue.” And what dialogue it is! I think this is where the accusations of difficulty will come from, because it *is* sometimes not obvious whom the dialogue is coming from or what the character is talking about. The best way to think of it, really, is as if you’re eavesdropping on some wonderfully scandalous, gossipy, witty conversations – you’re not always sure straight away who is being discussed or why, but if you just go with the flow all becomes clear!

And the prose *is* witty and sparkling and very unexpected – Firbank juxtaposes words in his descriptions you wouldn’t expect; his comparisons are often outlandish but surprisingly effective, painting vivid pictures of the rarefied society he’s writing about. Take the picture he paints of Mira Thumbler:

“Mira Thumbler was a mediaeval-looking little thing, with peculiar pale ways, like a creature escaped through the border of violets and wild strawberries of a tapestry panel.”

And then a simple description of the preparations for a soiree contains this:

“In the centre of the room, a number of fragile gilt chairs had been waiting patiently all day to be placed, heedless, happily, of the lamentations of Therese, who, whilst rolling her eyes, kept exclaiming, “Such wild herds of chairs; such herds of wild chairs!”

The risk here is that I’ll pull out so many quotes that it will dazzle you – but just a couple more:

“The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.”

and

“Although there were moments even still in the grey glint of morning when the room had the agitated, stricken appearance of a person who had changed his creed a thousand times, sighed, stretched himself, turned a complete somersault, sat up, smiled, lay down, turned up his toes and died of doubts. But this aspect was reserved exclusively for the housemaids and the translucent threads of dawn.”

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If Firbank is a forgotten novelist at all, it’s a shame. His wit and cleverness should put him up with the Sakis and the Wildes of this world; and his use of so much dialogue does make me think of Ivy Compton-Burnett! I *did* love this book, and I shall return to “Valmouth” with new eyes. This is a lovely new edition of “Vainglory” by Michael Walmer, and I’d highly recommend Firbank to anyone who loves witty dialogue!

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Birthdays, birthdays, birthdays – The Wonderful Richard Brautigan

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I’ve been known to ramble on about the amazing Richard Brautigan – notably here.

Let’s just say he’s one of my favourite writers, for prose like this if nothing else:

I will be very careful the next time I fall in love, she told herself. Also, she had made a promise to herself that she intended on keeping. She was never going to go out with another writer: no matter how charming, sensitive, inventive or fun they could be. They weren’t worth it in the long run. They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around the house that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it. She wanted her next lover to be a broom.”

Brautigan’s most famous novel is probably “Trout Fishing in America”, but my favourite may be “Sombrero Fallout”, from which the above quote is taken from. Richard Brautigan was a one-off and they don’t make them like him any more.

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“all of us have a place in history. mine is clouds.”

Many happy returns, Richard – wherever you are in the clouds…

 

С Днем Рождения Антон Чехов

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“The world perishes not from bandits and fires, but from hatred, hostility, and all these petty squabbles.”

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904)

“Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

Happy birthday to one of my favourite Russian authors!

Recent Reads: Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

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It’s always hard to know what to read after an all-encompassing, absorbing book like “Life”, or something by a favourite author like Beverley Nichols – I did try Amelia B. Edwards short stories, but although they were good, they weren’t *great* (or I wasn’t in the right mood). Anyway, I abandoned them half-way through and turned to what I hoped would be a light, enjoyable distraction – “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” by Jules Verne.

Félix_Nadar_1820-1910_portraits_Jules_Verne_(restoration)

All I knew about the plot was from the James Mason film adaptation, and having had a bit of a root about online, it soon became obvious that the book would be quite different as a lot of changes were made for the movie. And the eternal problem of translation reared its head again, which I really wasn’t expecting! I thought, maybe a little naively, that translating from French to English would be more straightforward than say the Russians – but I was wrong. It seems that the early English versions of Verne suffered from sloppy translating and heavy, lazy editing which removed a lot of the scientific parts and contracted dialogue down to a paragraph of description etc. This made a little nervous but fortunately, my 1965 Penguin edition proclaims that it is a “New translation specially commissioned from Robert Baldrick for Penguin Science Fiction”.* Additionally, a useful online site which rates the various versions of Verne seems to think that this one is ok, so I breathed a sigh of relief and embarked!

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Most people will know the basic plot of this book – an eccentric professor, Lidenbrock, discovers an old manuscript by the explorer Arne Saknussemm, which gives hints of how to travel to the centre of the earth. With his reluctant nephew Axel and their taciturn but essential guide Hans, they set off to follow in Saknussemm’s footsteps, travelling down into an extinct volcano in Iceland and attempting to boldly go where only one man has gone before! The journey is full of excitement and drama, strange interior landscapes, underground seas and forests, and some very alarming creatures…

I had certain expectations of the book based on the film, but in many ways they were wrong. The film had additional elements added which made it a completely different prospect to the novel (love interest, evil rival) and if I remember correctly lost many of the more adventurous aspects. Because this book is nothing if not full of adventure! The characters are very well drawn – the irascible professor, the slightly cowardly but sometimes brave (and so therefore very human!) Axel, and the quiet but reliable Hans. We see how they learn to rely on each other in times of crisis, developing a deep friendship, and we watch their progress into the bowels of the earth with wonder.

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What is remarkable to realise is that Verne never travelled very widely – he made trips around Europe, and one to the USA, I believe, but not much further. So all of this wonderful imagery and description is summoned pretty much out of his very fertile imagination. And of course, the underground regions were completely invented because no-one ever had (or has!) travelled to the centre of the Earth! There is plenty of scientific discussions, as befits a couple of mineralogists, but this is very much in character, and doesn’t become tedious. And Verne’s prose and descriptions are excellent – for example, this wonderful piece of description of vertigo when Axel is becoming acclimatised to heights in Copenhagen:

“I saw the houses looking as if they had been squashed flat by a fall, in the midst of the smoke fog created by their chimneys. Over my head wisps of cloud were passing, and by an optical illusion they seemed to me to be motionless, while the spire, the ball and I were being carried along at a tremendous speed. Far away on one side there was the green country, and on the other the sea was sparkling under a sheaf of sunbeams. The Sound stretched away to the Point of Elsinore, dotted with a few white sails like seagulls’ wings, and in the mist to the east the faintly blurred coast of Sweden was visible. The whole of this vast spectacle spun around beneath my eyes.”

“Journey” is also a very gripping and exciting read. Verne never lets the pace flag, and our heroes pass from one adventure to another. There is a certain contracting of time, when we will learn in a couple of sentences how they travel through a particular place for hours (or even days!), so Verne doesn’t waste words! And his vision of what it’s like below the earth, although now scientifically disproved, is still stunning and unusual – he conjures up some wonderful images with his descriptions of strange plant and animal life, a huge and strange sea, clouds and caverns – it’s certainly an intoxicating, exciting journey to go along on!

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This was a really satisfying, enjoyable read – one of those books you just sink into straight away, and look forward to picking up and reading the next chapter. Is it science fiction? That’s a good question, and I would prefer to label it “imaginative fiction”. There is science in it, and exploration – but nothing from outer space, no flying saucers or aliens and it certainly isn’t anything like modern sci-fi. This was just simply a brilliantly written, exciting adventure; thought-provoking in places and great fun. I shall look forward to exploring more of Jules Verne!

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As an aside, it does seem such a shame that Verne’s reputation has suffered so much from the language issue. Bad and shortened translations really have led to him being dismissed a children’s’ author and denied much of a place in the great pantheon of literature. Why you should dismiss children’s authors is a question I’d like to raise anyway, but certainly he deserves to be recognised as a great writer of fiction. In searching for information on the various versions, I stumbled across this site, which was quite a useful guide. I then went off at a tangent trying to find out which versions were published by Wordsworth Editions, as they don’t always state the translators, and I must thank them for their very helpful and informative responses when I made contact – luckily the versions they put out are rated as ok on the Jules Verne site! So it’s off to track down some Wordsworths!

* If anyone is interested in vintage Penguin Science Fiction books, there is a wonderful resource here

Joyeux anniversaire Colette

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It seems to be birthdays galore at the moment, and today is a very special one – that of the wonderful French author and bon viveur, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known more familiarly to readers simply as Colette.

Jean Cocteau and Colette, Paris ca 1950 -by Robert Cohen

Jean Cocteau and Colette, Paris ca 1950 – photo by Robert Cohen

Colette was another one of those amazing women writers I discovered in the flowering of my interest in literature – the late 1970s and early 1980s were a real voyage of discovery for me. I read through Colette’s works from the very beginning, in lovely pastel-colour covered editions from Penguin; from the early adventures of Claudine, all the way through to Colette’s last days, crippled by arthritis but still writing under the light of a blue-shaded lamp.

break of dayBut my favourite book of hers has always been “Break of Day”, with its glorious descriptions of the south of France, and the author’s wry comments on love and ageing and her relationship with physical, earthy things. I’ve returned to it regularly over the years and it never disappoints.

Colette lived a full, exciting and pioneering life, with enough events to actually fill several lives! I was thrilled when I found out she had actually been filmed in her latter days and it was wonderful to see a recording of the real woman.

Happy birthday Colette!

from “Life: A User’s Manual” by Georges Perec

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life

“…and at the very bottom, a world of caverns whose walls are black with soot, a world of cesspools and sloughs, a world of grubs and beasts, of eyeless beings who drag animal carcasses behind them, of demoniacal monsters with bodies of birds, swine and fish, of dried-out corpses and yellow-skinned skeletons arrayed in attitudes of the living, of forges manned by dazed Cyclopses in black leather aprons, their single eyes shielded by metal-rimmed blue glass, hammering their brazen masses into dazzling shields”

(For no other reason than to show the intoxicating power of Perec’s writing – thanks to Bruce F for the suggestion)

A strange and lovely find in Waterstones…

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No, I haven’t gone completely manic and decided to buy lots of new books as well as my recent bargain finds! But for unavoidable reasons I had to go into Waterstones and purchase a brand new, shiny book on Saturday (Youngest Child needed a copy of Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and I had left it too late for an online shop; plus I needed extra last-minute birthday gifts for Middle Child).

So I wandered into the fiction section and fortunately they had the Carter book. However, when I picked it up, this little card fluttered out from behind it onto the floor:

art card 1

It’s rather striking, and I wasn’t sure what it was until I turned it over and read the reverse:

art card 2So it seems that some lovely creative person has been hiding little works of art in amongst the books – how cool and wonderful is that? As I liked the art, I followed the instructions and have brought it home to use as a bookmark – thank you, artistic stranger!

On the subject of book buying, I was reasonably under control this weekend – only two books came home with me and they were irresistible bargains:

pelevinPelevin is a modern Russian writer I want to explore – I have his “Clay Machine Gun” on Mount TBR and this was just to good to ignore for £1. It sounds rather intriguing – I wonder whether there might be elements influenced by “The Master and Margarita”?

And the other treat was a very nice Penguin:

wellsThis volume contains such notable works as “The Time Machine” and “The Country of the Blind” – so for £1.25 I succumbed. Definitely *no* risk of me running out of books to read any time soon…….

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